New approach to drug prevention good on paper, lacking in practice

  • 2005-03-16
  • By Alec Charles
TALLINN - "It is impossible to get out. To get out from everything which is around me. I will never stop using heroin.
"If I were the leader of the Estonian government, I would find more resources to fight against drugs. I would give more possibilities to drug addicts to be cured, because they get almost nothing from the government."

Those were the words of a Russian-speaking Estonian heroin addict, in an interview conducted five years ago by psychologist Paul Downes for his book "Living with Heroin," a ground-breaking study of the relationship between drug use and social exclusion in the Baltic States.

The use of hard drugs and the resulting dangers of HIV infection are a predominantly Russian problem in Estonia. It is estimated that 80 percent of Estonia's heroin users are members of the country's Russian-speaking minority.

"The drug problem is mostly related to the integration problem," says Katri Abel of the Drugs Monitoring Center. "A change in integration policy is needed."

"If you don't know the Estonian language it's difficult to get a job, and there are other social problems," adds Ave Talu, head of the National Focal Point for drugs research. "It's an endless circle."

Eerik Heldna, chief superintendent of the drugs crime division of Pohja Police Prefecture, echoes this perspective.

"When it comes to opiates, it's usually a social problem," says Heldna. "It's youngsters from bad backgrounds, with no education and unemployed parents. The use of cocaine, ecstasy, and amphetamines is mainly related to bad attitudes 's they want to have fun but take no responsibility. So this problem is a mix of medical, social, educational and personal problems."

What's to be done?

The Estonian government launched a new Drugs Prevention Strategy in 2004. For the first time this involves culturally specific prevention tactics aimed directly at the country's Russian-speaking communities. This move is applauded by Paul Downes.

"The recognition of the need to target the Russian-speaking minority for drug prevention in their own language is long overdue but is nevertheless to be strongly welcomed," Downes says.

"The social marginalization of the Russian-speaking minority is a major issue in drug use in Estonia. One of the main ways to prevent heroin use is to give the Russian-speaking communities a voice and a hope for the future."

The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction has hailed Estonia's Drugs Prevention Strategy as the best in all the 10 new EU member states. However, the strategy has only received about six million kroons (400,000 euros) in government funding 's about one quarter of the money it requested.

"It's hard to see what's behind the budget," says Ave Talu. "Evidence-based policy-making is not always understood here. A good strategy remains on paper if it doesn't have the proper funding."

Estonia is also about to launch its Drugs Treatment Strategy, which includes the use of methadone substitution treatments, the first of which was started in Tallinn in 2002 and currently treats about 60 addicts.

"We don't have a proper treatment system, but the new strategy is going to improve treatment," says Talu. "The action plan calls for major funding."

But the Prevention Strategy also called for major funding, and didn't get it. Money, of course, is always the problem. Dr Nelli Kalikova, an MP and the founder of Tallinn's AIDS Prevention Center, agrees.

"To treat drug addicts is expensive, but it's cheaper than leaving them on the streets," she says.

"Rehabilitation costs up to 8,000 kroons per person per month. If that person stayed on heroin, he would steal to make the 30,000 kroons he'd need for drugs."

Kalikova points out that children need sports and other after-school activities to keep them busy and to keep them off drugs.

"But city governments have had other priorities," she says. "They turn free spaces into car parks instead of sports fields, because it's more profitable."

A sporting chance

In the late 1990s, John Slade 's an exmilitary Englishman now resident in Estonia 's was asked for advice about some disruptive children in a Tallinn school. He found half a dozen boys who were being unusually aggressive. He noticed that they had sores around their noses and mouths. After some research, he came to the conclusion that they were sniffing glue.

"I asked the city government if they had any information on drugs," he says. "They said we don't have a drugs problem in Estonia."

And so Slade founded his own Anti-Drugs-in-Schools program, which he continues to run. Its activities range from arranging rugby, skiing and other sports for underprivileged schoolchildren to raising funds to buy sniffer dogs for the Estonian border guards.

Each sniffer dog costs about 15,000 kroons, plus 10,000 kroons for training, and about 1,000 kroons a month for food. Its working life is between five and seven years.

"It's the most cost-effective method," says Slade. "It's pennies. I see these ministers driving around in their Mercedes, but there's never any money for drugs detection or deterrence.

"The city government has spent seven million kroons on a clock, two and a half million on a bloody toilet, three million on a place for dogs to shit in. Their priority should be the children."

Slade believes that disadvantaged children need activities to motivate them and help them to develop self-discipline and self-esteem. It's an approach with which Paul Downes wholeheartedly agrees.

"Research would suggest that after-school activities 's such as sports, arts and drama 's are key protective factors in keeping teenagers in schools and in the system," says Downes. "A key quality of these activities is that they give teenagers control over their environments."

"When they get home from school, there's no one in the apartment," Slade adds. "There's a gang of bloody deadbeats outside. They just drift into drugs because they've got shit-all else to do."

One of the projects John Slade has started gives schoolchildren the opportunity to make a video about their neighborhood. One such film to come out of the scheme shows a derelict building next to a school playground. The place is littered with used needles and syringes and empty plastic bottles, all the paraphernalia of junk. Outside, a couple of kids are rolling a joint.

"When I saw it, I was shocked," Slade says. "It was like a drugs paradise. I have three children going through the system, and I believe this system is totally and utterly crap. And, until all the other parents stand up and do something, it will continue to be."